Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reformation Lamentation

I just finished reading A Column of Fire, the third of Ken Follett’s volumes of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. This one portrays life in the 1500’s in the wake of Catholic Priest Father Martin Luther’s October 31, 1517, courageous attempt to inspire reform of his church.

Follett’s novel and all the current celebration of the 500th anniversary of Father Martin’s action inspired me to review the Reformation years as described in my Lutheran Seminary textbook, The Story of Christianity by Justo L. Gonzalez. Follett’s thousand or so pages are an elaboration of probably a dozen or so in the textbook, mostly focused on the people driving and caught up in the competition between Catholic “Bloody Mary” Tudor, Protestant Elizabeth I, and Catholic Mary “Queen of Scots” Stuart, potential successor put to death on orders of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and Mary Tudor were half-sisters and Elizabeth and Mary Stuart were cousins so I suppose one could say it was just a murderous family squabble. A summary statement from Gonzalez: “The total number of those executed for religious reasons during Elizabeth’s reign was approximately the same as those who died under her half sister Mary Tudor though it should be remembered that Elizabeth’s reign was almost ten times as long as Mary’s.” The heroes of Follett’s story are those suffering the persecution and fighting for religious freedom.

The Gonzalez text relates the burning at the stake, in Calvin’s Geneva, with Calvin’s consent, of Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician condemned by both Protestants and Catholics for heresy. Servetus is credited with having argued “that the union of church and state after Constantine’s conversion was in truth a great apostasy.” I think Servetus was exactly right and that it was that union, entangling the Church, the Body of Christ, in political intrigue and granting it political and temporal power, even the power to identify, label, and condemn to death heretics, which nurtured corruption and finally triggered the destructive reformation of the sixteenth century. Well, at least Calvin is reported to have argued for beheading rather than burning Servetus because it involved less suffering.

So, I find little to celebrate about the Reformation but much to lament.

I lament that union of Church and State which actually was finalized under the Emperor Theodosius I who decreed that all citizens of the Roman Empire were to be Christian. That, of course, led to lots of mass baptisms without the benefit of catechesis, either before or after the event, never a good idea.

I lament the Church corruption that was nurtured and grew in that atmosphere of temporal power and motivated Martin Luther’s posting of a formal list of grievances. Lord Acton spoke the truth: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”

I lament Henry VIII’s “Dissolution of the Monasteries” of England, Wales, and Ireland. It was worse than it sounds.

I lament the torture and killing, by Protestants and Catholics, of thousands of Protestants and Catholics, for heresy. At least during the early years of persecution of the Church, Christians were being killed and burned by pagan rulers and not by "professing" Christians. 

I lament the killing of those poor folks who were not "Protestants" because they followed neither Luther, nor Calvin, nor Zwingli, nor Knox, but who decided that baptism was valid only if by total immersion of professing believers, received such a baptism, and then suffered death by "the third baptism," drowned at the hands of "Protestant Christians."

I lament the Thirty Years War, fought over enforced geographic religious divisions based only on political and personal considerations, “Christians” fighting “Christians,” which resulted in the death of approximately 20% of the population of Germany.

I lament that even a hundred years after the Thirty Years War, thousands of Protestants were expelled from Austria and became refugees, some settling in Georgia and South Carolina and founding a bank. Google it if you want the details.

But that is all ancient history. Most of all I lament the current fragmentation of The Church, The Body of Christ, that is the residue of that violent reformation. I lament the existence of hundreds, some say thousands of "denominations" differing and sometimes arguing, criticizing, or condemning each other over theological fine points.

I lament the consumer market that has developed for faith seekers. Now I can seek, or even organize, a church that suits me rather than seeking to be part of a global Body of Christ with a common universal statement of belief and common resources and worship practices. It becomes all about me when I do that.

I lament that even within "denominations," we are fragmented into thousands of little churches sprinkled around the country, sometimes within blocks of each other, many struggling to pay their bills and their pastors, if they have pastors, many with little Christian Education or outreach, sometimes clinging to the past and serving as hospices for their declining memberships.

There is power in unity and in numbers and in working together in ministry in highly visible churches sitting on high ground and attracting curious multitudes just as Jesus attracted the multitudes. The early Middle Ages "powers that were" had the right idea, huge cathedrals as the centerpieces of the towns, though Father Martin certainly had valid complaints about the fund raising methods used at the time to finance some of those cathedrals.

I do, however, celebrate the religious freedom that gradually evolved over the past five hundred years and that most of the world enjoys today. Now most Christians can just focus on Jesus and not worry about political power and persecution even as we lament that part of the world is still trapped in a Middle Ages mindset, willing to imprison and kill people over theological issues. Unfortunately, the world still needs heroes fighting for religious freedom. 

I just look forward to the day that freedom brings us together rather than further separating and dividing us.
Isaiah 2:2-4  In days to come, The mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: "Come, let us climb the LORD'S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths." For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.
John 17:20-23  "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. 
Ephesians 2:19-22  So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.